As the Ontario government allows households to expand their circles of immediate contact amid Phase 2 of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, Ottawa public health officials are advising restraint heading forward as the risk of virus transmission remains.
The Ontario government announced Friday it would allow residents to form social circles of up to 10 people without the need for regular physical distancing.
Previous messaging had permitted expanded social gatherings of up to 10 people, but maintaining the standard two metres of distance between anyone outside of individuals’ immediate households.
These social circles are fixed and not allowed to overlap, so as to avoid any unmitigated transmission of the virus and aid in contact tracing should new positive cases be identified.
Speaking to media on Friday afternoon, Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said the step was important for residents who have been hard hit by the mental health impacts of the pandemic and who needed extra support, either in the form of child care from a family member or even just a long-overdue hug.
“Hugs are important for health,” Etches said.
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But just because the rules have been relaxed to allow for physical affection doesn’t mean the higher risks of transmission associated with closer contact are gone.
“That’s the highest risk activity,” Etches said of close physical contact.
As such, when establishing a social circle with friends and family, keep in mind who’s at risk — older populations and people with chronic illness, for example — and don’t feel the need to interact with as many people as possible.
“The principles to decrease risk do not change,” Etches said, noting that spending time socializing with others is still best done at a distance for the foreseeable future.
“The fewer people the better. That’s the principle.”
Dr. Doug Manuel, an epidemiologist with the Ottawa Hospital, said Friday that the job of communicating public health advice has become increasingly complicated as the province reopens.
The beginning of the pandemic, when the advice was just to stay home and not interact with anyone, was relatively simple to communicate, Manuel said.
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But as social circles expand, businesses reopen and residents begin to wonder what’s OK and what’s not, there are fewer strict rules to refer to.
“Now, we’re in this really tricky stage where messaging is less clear,” Manuel said.
While Etches admitted there is grey area between what’s allowed and what’s recommended, she said the principles of the pandemic have not changed.
Namely, that everyone should keep two metres of distance when possible, wear a mask, regularly wash hands and stay home when sick.
As Ottawa officially entered stage two of reopening on Friday, Ottawa Public Health identified nine new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing the local total to 2,012.
There were no new deaths related to the virus, however, leaving the death toll of the pandemic at 257.
Seventeen people are currently hospitalized with the virus in Ottawa, none of whom are in the intensive care unit, and there are eight ongoing outbreaks at institutions in Ottawa.
Manuel said Friday that a sharp decrease in new outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Ottawa has been a positive local trend in combatting the pandemic.
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